On All Fronts

A Comparative Study of How Sexual Violence Was Dealt With during and Directly after World War II

The notion is widespread that sexual violence is an isolated phenomenon which follows the same pattern in every military conflict. However, recent research investigating various theaters of war suggests the opposite—that this form of violence is a heterogeneous and polymorphic phenomenon.

Sexual violence in armed conflicts takes on different forms ranging from forced disrobement, sexual torture, rape and sexual enslavement to forced prostitution and forced pregnancy. It is perpetrated to a varying extent and with differing degrees of intensity. These acts of violence can serve diverse functions. For example, they can be part of an ethnic or political cleansing or a collective punishment, or an opportunistic act by an individual perpetrator. Depending on the constellation of people involved, these acts can take on different meanings. The rape of women belonging to an enemy group has a different connotation than sexual violence within a group’s own collective. Although violent sexual acts are predominantly perpetrated against women and girls, men and boys can also be victims.

The project investigates the regular occurrence of such phenomena as well as their characteristics in specific conflict situations during World War II and the immediate postwar period. What factors—national, cultural or religious notions of gender and sexuality; how military actors were organized; the nature of warfare; and specific previous historical experience—determine similarities and differences in the practice of this kind of violence? How did soldiers, military leaders, victims, the persons victims trusted, and civil authorities talk about sexual violence or remain silent? 

1) Between 1932 and 1945, Japanese soldiers, businessmen, and local collaborators in the occupied areas of Asia established a network of 2,000 so-called comfort stations in which some 100,000 women and girls, mostly from the Japanese colony of Korea, were held as sexual slaves. The military leadership supported the comfort station system to bind soldiers to the army and prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Many women died from the use of force in these comfort stations, and many other chose suicide in the face of social stigmatization and exclusion.

The fear of sexual torture and rape was part of everyday wartime life for women and girls in the areas of the Soviet Union occupied by German forces as well. Pursuing motivations that resembled those of the Japanese army, the leaders of the German Wehrmacht and the German SS attempted to influence the sexual behavior of their troops by setting up disinfection rooms and medically supervised brothels and by distributing condoms. However, these measures differed significantly from the Japanese system of comfort stations.

To understand similarities and differences, the project investigates how sexuality, in particular trafficking in women and prostitution, was dealt with during the pre-war history of Japan and Germany.   

2) Allied soldiers also committed acts of violence during the war and the postwar period. For example, former comfort women exploited by the Japanese army were confronted after the war with Allied soldiers who continued operating the comfort stations. In Europe, Allied soldiers perpetrated sexual violence not only against German women but also against women who had been persecuted by the Nazis in areas formerly occupied by Germany.

This part of the research project focuses especially on the British army, which so far has hardly been investigated. Sources suggest that British soldiers behaved quite differently in the European theater of war than they did in Asian conflict areas.  

The use of sexual violence in armed conflicts is a contested political issue that is highly emotional and eroticized and permeated with various national and international interests. For these reasons, the project is also investigating how, when, and by whom this history has been addressed or passed over in silence in different political and societal contexts since 1945.

(Last modified April 2013)